Book Review: Blood Eye (Raven, Book One)
Bantam Books, 2012
In the interview appended to his crackerjack Viking novel Blood Eye (published in the UK in 2009 and now available in a pretty U.S. mass market from Bantam), young author Giles Kristian gives an appreciative mention to Margaret Elphinstone’s stultifyingly 2000 novel The Sea Road, but he might more predictably have nodded in the direction of Eric Neilson’s 1980s novels recounting the adventures of Haakon the Viking. Neilson’s books are addictively unbearable action-trash of the type that flourished so wonderfully under the protective penumbra of President Reagan’s shoulder-pads, and Kristian is Neilson’s spiritual heir, if not his reincarnation (is Neilson dead? Do action-hack writers die? Is there a hidden compound where Don Pendleton is sipping whiskey and churning out cheeseball thrillers even as we speak?).
Blood Eye is the first in a series of novels chronicling the 9th-Century adventures of orphan boy Osric, who’s a bit odd and grows to become a feared warrior named Raven, who travels with his faithful band of Vikings but is never quite one of them. Kristian has researched his period to a fare-thee-well, and that’s nice; the by-turns daunting and dull nature of that research might be why the market isn’t quite seeing a glut of Viking books (although it’s seen its share of Viking movies, including the underrated The Pathfinder and the sublime, incredible The 13th Warrior).
But where Kristian really excels is at atmosphere; Blood Eye is chilly with mist, grimy with the dirt and sweat of campaigns, peaty with winter mornings. Our author has a knack for turning the things he finds in military histories into vivid first-person realities for his characters, as in one of the many passages where combat-tactics come up:
Then, like the last great wave before the tide turns, the English shieldwall closed again, its warriors desperate to tear a way through. They knew that one hole in the Norsemen’s line would make the whole thing cave in, but the Norsemen knew it too, and none of them would let himself prove the weakest stone, not while blood still filled his veins or while he stood in the sight of his friends. The English failed again and began to shuffle backward, the men at the rear allowing this to happen for the first time. Sigurd did not miss his chance. Stepping over broken bodies, he took his line forward, keeping pressure on the English shields until Ealdred’s men were forced back to the Christ tapestries and out of the door behind.
And where would a Viking novel be without visceral action-sequences? Really, the whole enterprise must turn on these (Neilson’s can be almost frighteningly intense), since the Vikings in the popular imagination are first and always action-figures, ‘viking’ itself being an action-verb rather than a name. In boring old real life, they were far more often traders – or even, shudder, farmers – but in fiction, they’re forever hewing skulls and torching Christian altars.
And Kristian’s right there alongside them, knee-deep in gore and passion. In Raven he’s created an indelible character, and he clearly knows it. We follow him and his band of brothers (and the occasional sister) through adventures in a fractured and barbaric medieval England, and Kristian never happier than when things get dicey:
“Bastards! Whoresons and Devil’s turds!” I screamed, wildly swinging my sword from side to side, spinning around seeking more enemies, hungry to send more wet crimson flying through the air. I struck flesh, stumbled, fell to one knee, and clambered back up again, then stamped on the body at my feet. Twice more I fell before somewhere beneath the madness, among the bloodlust, I heard a shrill repeating sound that slowly too shape.
“Raven! It’s over! It’s over!”
I threw my shield into the gorse and turned to look at Cynethryth through eyes full of salty, stinging blood.
This is an unabashedly fast and brutal series, a pure jolt of visceral fun. No zombies. No vampires. No Pemberley pastiches – just a world of snow and mist and violence, with a hard, good man at its center. This is an author to watch, and a series to read and re-read, if you’re an action-thriller fan.